Life in the Priory

Bath Cathedral Priory in the 12th century To set the scene, we need to look back at the spiritual fervour of the 12th century, that poured the nation's resources into the creation of huge houses of prayer. In Bath a great cathedral priory engulfed the whole south-east quarter of the city. (The terminology is confusing. Bath had a Saxon abbey, headed by an abbot. In the Norman period, when the bishop became the titular abbot, the monastery was run by his deputy, the prior, making it a priory. But the people of Bath, unconcerned with these niceties, called it the abbey, hence the present name.)

The plan of the cathedral was extrapolated by Warwick Rodwell from parts uncovered in the last century and this. My own research put the people into the building. How was the cathedral organised? How did it work?

Reconstruction of the Norman cathedral at Bath (Bath Archaeological Trust)The heart of the ritual layout was the choir, where the monks chanted the services seven times a day, starting with Vigils and ending with Compline. The timing followed nature, rather than the clock and so varied with the seasons, but for example at the March and September equinoxes, the monks rose for Vigils at two in the morning after seven hours sleep. Then they would go back to bed and re-emerge at first light for Lauds. Prime was at dawn and so on though the day. This round of prayer was the whole function of the monastery and everything else was designed to support it. The choir normally lay beneath the crossing. To judge by the raised Norman floor there, it was in the usual place at Bath.

To the east was the presbytery with the high altar. An ambulatory might run around it giving access to chapels, as at Bath. More chapels lay in the transepts. All these chapels would be used by those monks who were also priests and so required to say private masses. Around 1200 the cult of the Virgin Mary rose to the dominating position it still holds in the Roman Catholic Church. She reigned supreme among the saints, the Queen of Heaven. A church of any size would have a chapel to her, known as the Lady chapel, which was almost invariably the most magnificent. Some were placed on the north side of the church, as at Ely. But the position of greatest sanctity - at the east end, behind the high altar - was the most favoured place. That was the choice at Bath.

Reconstruction of the Benedictine master plan devised at Aachen in 817 (Walter Horn and Ernest Born)To the west was the great nave, where the people of Bath could come to Sunday mass, though they had their own churches too. The monks were shielded from the lay congregation by the rood screen. It took its name from the image of Christ crucified (known as the rood) on the screen above the main nave altar. So that was the altar of the Holy Cross.

Benedictine monasteries were built to a standard plan. It was highly functional. The main buildings were placed around a cloister preferably on the south side of the church to catch the sun. The dormitory was on the first floor of the east range with a night stair down into the south transept, so that the monks could go straight from their beds to the choir to chant Vigils and Lauds. During the day they would file into the choir from the cloister. On the south side of the cloister was the refectory. There would be a lavatorium in the cloister where the monks washed their hands before going into the refectory. There they would eat in silence while one of their number read from the scriptures.

For convenience, the kitchen was linked to the refectory and close to the cellarium in the west range. The cellarium was not an underground cellar, but the storehouse for food, ale and wine. In all but the smallest monasteries, sick monks were housed in an infirmary outside the cloister. Ever practical, the monastic planners placed this beside the cemetery. Usually the infirmary would be on the secluded east side of the site, but there was no space for it there at Bath. In any case it would be a pity not to make use of the city's healing waters. Between the King's Bath and the cemetery would be the best place for the infirmary. Barry Cunliffe excavated a two-storey Norman building there some years ago.

The abbey gate on Savile's map of Bath c.1600While the cloister was the quiet centre of the contemplative life, the great court was the hub of its practical support. There all would be noise and bustle. Around it were ranged the kitchen, bakehouse, brewhouse and workshops. South of the court were the stables. Visitors came into the court through the great gate of the priory, which survived until 1733. John Wood described a middle aperture and a northern postern. Picture a large gateway vaulted high enough for heavily-laden carts and a smaller one for pedestrians, like the surviving one of St Augustine's, Bristol. Henry Savile's bird's-eye view of Bath shows the gate around 1600. It was served by a lay porter, who had a lodge beside it. He would have peered through a grille to check your identity before he let you in.

The circular building outside the south gate was the priory dovecot. Dovecots were essential to provide fresh meat throughout the year. Benedictines were supposed to abstain entirely from the flesh of four-footed animals, so there was a great need for birds and fish. Bishop Robert Burnell granted the priory the meadows by the Avon in 1279 and donated £10 for the construction of two fishponds, which you can see alongside the wall.

Monastic plumbing was advanced. Monastic engineers had no problem bringing water from Beechen Cliff across the Avon in pipes attached to the bridge, as well as channelling it down from Beacon Hill. Monks also had the best lavatories the age could provide, that is a row of seats over running water. At Bath it looks as though they were in the usual place, attached to the dormitory; waste water can be seen running out through the city wall in that area, carefully routed around the fishponds to the river.

Outside the city wall was the priory orchard and mill. It was a self-sufficient community.

Continue to Cutting Down.